A Case for Torture?

Published March 29, 2007 · Estimated reading time: 6 minutes · 7 responses so far
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Since the article The Case for Torture by Michael Levin was published in Newsweek in 1982, it has been used steadily to credit or discredit arguments for the use of torture. The article’s subject matter is definitely polarizing and attempting to write exclusively about the organization and logic made me appreciate just how hard it is to separate the arguments a written piece from its subject matter and its author. Offering a lucid critique, while remaining logical and not falling into a “rant mode” or engaging in dialogue is a lot harder than it sounds, specially when the article happens to be on such a divisive issue. I have to say I personally prefer Jon Swift’s modest proposal for fixing the ills of our society. 😉 However, I recommend that people read Levin’s peice and give it some thought prior to reading my modest critique.

A Case for Torture? (A response to The Case For Torture)

In the article entitled “The Case for Torture” published by Newsweek in 1982, Michael Levin argues that the use of torture as a means to save lives is justifiable and necessary. Beginning with very general premises, Levin draws a series of hyperbolic cases where torture might be justifiable so as to set precedents for the justification of torture in more “realistic cases.” However, the author never fully defines the boundaries and conditions behind his premises and suggests that disregarding civil liberties as deemed necessary may be justified to preserve those same civil liberties. Throughout the article Levin resorts to a number of arguments with visible logical flaws, and by the end he fails to address any inquiries that may be raised against his arguments, instead drawing his arguments and conclusions into fear-inducing fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.

With the premise that “torture is justifiable only to save lives,” Levin illustrates three cases where torture might be justifiable. In the first, he describes a terrorist holding a city of millions hostage to an atomic bomb; the second, a terrorist who has implanted remote-controlled bombs on a plane; and the third, a terrorist who has kidnapped a baby.

In each of these cases, Levin draws hyperbolic situations where it is insinuated that the extreme violence of certain crimes justifies discarding the constitutional rights of individuals. Levin essentially appeals to fear as a way of rationalizing cases where the rights of the individual should not hold for the supposed greater good of the society. Levin does not clearly limit the use of torture to these three extraordinary examples, but rather suggests that any number of cases may require the violation of individual rights, and thereby the constitution. For instance, in his hyperbolic examples, Levin uses saving lives of citizens as necessary to preserve order. However, stifling dissent may also be deemed as necessary to preserve order. Although the torture of dissidents may be identified by most as a characteristic of despotic rule, the previous examples can lead to the conclusion anything that disrupts order may be a suitable candidate for the use of torture.

The second premise of Levin’s article deals with the administration of torture. Levin states that “[torture is] justifiably administrated only to those known to hold innocent lives in their hands”. Levin fails to provide conditions and parameters for this assertion. Would it be justifiable for instance to torture and violate the rights of innocent family members of a suspect in order to seize information from a suspect? Levin lists some questions that bring the premise discussed under scrutiny. But instead of expanding upon and countering critical questions such as “how can the authorities ever be sure they have the right malefactor?” or “Isn’t there a danger of error and abuse?” in order to support his ideas, Levin dismisses the questions as disingenuous and unnecessary. By doing so, Levin largely dismisses the necessity of the burden of proof, at the risk of incriminating the innocent. Instead he appeals to fear, ultimately stating that “paralysis in the face of evil is the greater danger.”

In his conclusions Levin states that there is “…little danger that the Western democracies will lose their way if they choose to inflict pain as one way of preserving order.” However, the implication that the state or individuals can disregard the constitution and their citizens’ rights as they deem fit would have serious repercussions for any constitutional democracy.

The use of torture and its consequences have been documented in countries around of world over a vast span of time, and for a variety of reasons. Yet Levin makes no attempt to expand his article beyond a hypothetical stance. In addition, in a scholarly article one would expect that credible sources other than the author would be referenced. The only attempt to reference a source is an informal poll from four anonymous mothers. The passage tries to evoke a sense of support for the original premises through stating that the mother who was the “most liberal” (and would presumably be against the use of torture) would herself administer torture to get her baby back. However, this can be considered as an appeal to a false authority as the credentials of the woman in question are not explicitly stated, beyond that she is “the most liberal” among a group of women.

An apparent theme throughout the article is Levin’s persisting appeal to emotions and pity of readers. Although seeking to evoke emotional responses from an audience may be a valid component of persuasion, relying solely on persuading the reader’s emotions rather than persuading the reader by reason can render an argument largely futile. Posing questions such as “If you caught the terrorist, could you sleep… knowing millions died because you… [did not] apply the electrodes?,” Levin engages in ad hominem reproach of the audience, casting into doubt their morals and integrity if they disagree with the basis of his arguments.

In the informal poll of the four anonymous mothers, it is apparent that Levin appealed to the fears and emotions of the parents in question. While the poll may indicate the strength of maternal feelings towards children, which one could speculate would also exist in the mothers of individuals tortured, it bears no relevance to the legal justification of torture on the broader scope of society.

Furthermore, Levin’s use of emotional dilemmas forces the reader into dichotomy of “Us and Them”. For instance, near the conclusion of the article, Levin makes a series of rhetorical statements about good and evil and the preservation of “Western democracies”. He makes subtle references to “freedom fighters”, “embassy”, “masked gunmen”, “airplane” hinting to the various plane hijackings that took place during the 1970s and 1980s as well as the 1979 Iranian embassy hostage crises. Levin forebodes of other terrorist events, and resolves that torture will ultimately be the only way to save thousands of lives. For a western audience in the mid-1980s these references would be painfully familiar and would evoke strong emotional responses. Levin’s conclusions force the audience to advocate the use of torture, which is paralleled to the preservation of western democracies, or otherwise become categorized as one of “Them.”

Levin’s article poses a serious and interesting question that has become especially relevant in the recent years with the emergence of the United States’ “War on Terror”. Stylistically, the article has a strong fluent tone. However, the logical fallacies and the overall appeal to fear and emotion in the article have severely detracted from the quality of the work and made the article more similar in style to a newspaper editorial rather than a serious academic piece.

Work cited:
Michael Levin. (1982). “The Case for Torture,” Newsweek.

Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

Happy Norouz!

Published March 21, 2007 · Estimated reading time: 1 minute · Share your thoughts
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The eternal Persian poet Saadi once wrote:

بنى آدم اعضاء يك پیکرند، که در آفرينش ز يك گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار، دگر عضوها را نماند قرار
تو که از محنت دیگران بیغمی، نشاید که نامت نهند ادمی

“The children of Adam are the limbs of one body
That share an origin in their creation
When one limb passes its days in pain
The other limbs cannot remain easy
You who feel no pain at the suffering of others
It is not fitting for you to be called human”

Nearly, a thousand years later, Saadi’s words echo through the passages of time. “Bani Adam”… the children of Adam– humanity is, as always, going through its seasons: sorrow, happiness, suffering, and enlightenment. For me, this past year has been a year of seasons, changes, experiences that I can’t really put into words. From home, family, familiarity… I have had the opportunity to come to one of the most fascinating, hipest cities in the world. I’ve met and become close to some of the most wonderful, talented, creative, and caring people in the world. I’ve felt thrilled, anguished, happy, exhausted… I have challenged myself, failed, succeeded, and grown. Last year, I asked for a great year, four seasons have passed, and not only have I had a great year, but in a way I have become a better person.

A new year, a new season, and a new reason has arrived–

Happy norouz!

I just wanted to take time on this 1st day of Farvardin, this first day of spring, to wish all Iranians, and others who celebrate the new day across the world, a wonderful Norouz and the wonderful new year… As the saying goes, harouzetan norouz, norouzetan pirouz!

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Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

A new way to look at the world (Stats Analysis)

Published March 19, 2007 · Estimated reading time: 3 minutes · Share your thoughts
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The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized.
Hans Rosling

This is one of the best gems that I’ve stumbled upon in recent memory, thanks to /.. Recently it was reported that Google has snaped up Karolinska stats tool for an ‘undisclosed sum’ ;). This tool was developed by the Hans Rosling (a professor of international health at Swedens’ Karolinska institute) and his son under the wing of Gapminder. The objective of the tool, called the Trendalyzer software, is to gather and present a variety of data from public data-bases that are normally inaccessible to the public in the same place in a comprehensive yet elegant manner.

So what? Companies spend millions of dollars a year attempting to improve their statistical analysis tools to compete in the market– after all, you don’t want to sell to the individual, the individual varies too much, you want to sell to the masses, and to do that you must understand the mind of the population. Good statistical analysis tools are even more important in the public arena where the report quotes Rosling stating that “public organizations around the world invest 20 billion dollars a year producing different kinds of statistics.”

What is apparently fantastic about the Trendalyzer is its ability to present a multitude of data in a way that is simple and visually attractive, and really expresses the association between different parameters. You can view a sample “graph” at Google:


The video below, however, really shows Rosling’s tool in action. Watch Rosling (and his dynamic personality) in a few slides essentially dispel the notion of a divided world and show the diversity that is present in regions that are often ‘lumped’ together… to those of us who would rather die than attempt to understand statistics. It’s fascinating!!


I thought maybe they know everything I am going to teach them about. So I did a pretest, when they came. And one of the questions from which I learnt a lot was this one: Which country has the highest child mortality of these five pairs. And I put them together so that one in each country has twice the rate of mortality as the other… so I got a confidence interval which was pretty narrow. And I got happy of course. At 1.8 out of 5 answers possible, that means that there was a place for a professor of international health and for my course. But one late night, when I was compiling my reprot I really realized my discovery. I have shown the Swedish top students know, statistically less significant about the world than the chimpanzees. Because the chimpanzees would score half right. If I gave them two bananas, with Sri Lanka and Turkey, they would be right half of the cases. But the students are not that. The problem for me was not ignorance, it was pre-conceived ideas. I did also an unethical study of the professors of the Karolinska Institute that have some of the noble prizes in medicine, and they are on par with the chimpanzees there. So this where I realized that there was a need to communicate…

Hans Rosling

So much potential! First, I am very excited to see how Google will expand this project (I still can’t get over the awesomeness that is Google Earth ) and second, man, someone please give me a ticket to Sweden! I am very impressed with their international health program… and I need to take Dr. Rosling’s lectures.

Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi